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27 Jul, 2013 17:41

EU’s response to NSA? Drones, spy satellites could fly over Europe

EU’s response to NSA? Drones, spy satellites could fly over Europe

The European Union is pondering an EU Commission proposal to acquire a fleet of surveillance drones, satellites, and planes as part of an “ambitious action” to boost the European defense industry. It follows revelations of the NSA’s spying programs.

The European Commission has issued a 17-page report, proposing some concrete steps that would encourage pan-European defense cooperation.

“Maintaining and developing defense capabilities to meet current and future challenges in spite of severe budget constraints will only be possible if far-reaching political and structural reforms are made. The time has come to take ambitious action,”
the Commission’s report said.

One of the actions suggested in the report is funding a pre-commercial procurement scheme to acquire prototypes of some technologies – including drones.

The full list of technology candidates includes equipment to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives threats (CBRNE), “communication equipment based on software defined radio technology,” and remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), otherwise known as drones.

An Airbus A310 MRTT tanker transport aircraft (L) prepares to refuel two Eurofighter jets (R) as they are accompanied by a Tornado fighter jet at the ILA International Air Show in Schoenefeld south of Berlin (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch )

According to Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the report, the European Commission has for long been eyeing the possibility of using drones over Europe.

“The European Commission has long identified the potential of this emerging technology and supported the market by investing in research and innovation relevant for RPAS through the Framework Programme for Research. A broad stakeholders’ consultation has demonstrated the necessity for action at EU level, setting as priorities the further development of RPAS civil applications and the integration of the systems into the European air space as soon as possible,” the document said. 

It also claimed it would “take into account the data protection and privacy concerns associated with the civil use of RPAS.”

The drones are also proposed to be used in conjunction with other surveillance technologies, including aircraft and satellites.

A man is at work during the set up of the "UAV Show Europe", an International Drone fair (AFP Photo)

Lamenting the absence of a structural link between civil and military space activities in the EU and saying that Europe “can no longer afford” the economic and political cost of such a divide, the Commission focused on several technologies that are said to be able to serve both civilian and defense objectives.

These include space surveillance and tracking (SST), which are said to be aimed at protecting satellites from space debris, boosting satellite communications (SATCOM), and building a pan-EU cutting-edge satellite surveillance capability.

The report said it is “crucial” for a number of technologies to be explored and developed in the EU, including “hyper-spectral, high resolution satellites in geostationary orbit or advanced ultra-high resolution satellites in combination with new sensor platforms such as RPAS.”

The Commission has yet to estimate to what extent the proposed moves are useful for EU security. Based on the assessment, it will “come up with a proposal for which capability needs, if any, could best be fulfilled by assets directly purchased, owned and operated by the [European] Union.”

A response to Snowden’s NSA leaks?

The Commission’s report is part of the ongoing debate on the common EU defense policy which is set to culminate in a summit of European leaders in December.

Media reports have said that the European Commission and Lady Ashton’s European External Action Service actually want to create military commands and communications systems to be used by the EU for internal security and defense purposes.

The UK, which stoutly opposes such motion, is said to be leading an intense behind-the-scenes battle against establishing an EU military operations headquarters in Brussels.

A French Rafale fighter jet (AFP Photo)

Curiously, senior European officials regard the plan as an urgent response to the recent scandal over NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations on American and British communications surveillance.

“The Edward Snowden scandal shows us that Europe needs its own autonomous security capabilities, this proposal is one step further towards European defense integration,” a senior EU official said, as quoted by the Daily Telegraph.

However, plans to create the EU’s own security and spying agency and employ spy drones and satellites for “internal and external security policies” – which would reportedly include police intelligence, internet surveillance, protection of external borders, and maritime overwatch – will likely raise concerns that the EU is creating its own version of the NSA.

The Open Europe think tank has already warned that the EU “has absolutely no democratic mandate for actively controlling and operating military and security capabilities.”

“The fact is, European countries have different views on defense and this is best served by intergovernmental cooperation, not by European Commission attempts at nation-building,” Open Europe research analyst Pawel Swidlicki said.